CLEARWATER, Fla. - If you asked a casual baseball fan to list all the reasons the Phillies now rank among baseball's elite, you'd probably get some obvious answers.

There's the power of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and the rest of the Phillies' lineup, which has led the National League in home runs each of the last two seasons.

There's the speed and run-scoring ability of Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino.

There was Brad Lidge's lights-out work as the closer during the 2008 run to the World Series title.

There were the additions of Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay in the kinds of trades that only other teams used to make.

Don't forget the defense.

"One thing about defense is that it helps everything," said Sam Perlozzo, the Phillies' third-base coach and infield instructor.

The Phillies' ability to catch the baseball has played a huge role during the team's recent run of three straight postseason appearances. Only three major-league teams have ranked in the top 10 in fielding percentage each of the last three seasons and the Phillies are the only one from the National League. The other two are the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, so obviously the Phillies are keeping good company in the defense department.

Pitchers are probably the people who most appreciate good defense because fewer errors and sensational defensive plays help the earned run average.

"Oh, we're definitely spoiled," Phillies reliever Ryan Madson said. "The things this team does on defense makes us look better. It's definitely a luxury we have on this team."

Madson said the Phillies' defensive play has often been a topic of conversation out in the bullpen.

"We talk about it all the time," he said. "The way Pedro Feliz was the last couple of years, we'd go out of our minds every time he'd make a play. It's rewarding having a team like that behind you defensively, because you know if you make your pitch, you're going to get outs."

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Phillies' 2010 defense is that Madson and the rest of the relievers will not be watching the wizardry of Feliz at third base. Instead, the position now belongs to Placido Polanco, who played almost exclusively at second base after being traded by the Phillies to the Detroit Tigers in 2005.

Despite the fact that Polanco is moving back to third, the Phillies don't seem the least bit concerned about a drop-off in defense.

"No, no, no," Madson said. "Polanco is good. He's not going to be far off [Feliz], if at all."

Perlozzo also has confidence in "Polly," which is how the coaching staff and Polanco's teammates refer to him.

"I really hope there's not a fall-off," Perlozzo said. "I think Polly has gotten more comfortable as he has gone along. I think it's a matter of repetition with him coming over from second base, but we're talking about a guy who only made two errors [last season], so we know he can catch the baseball down at third base."

There are a couple of interesting defensive facts about Polanco. It's true he made just two errors in 151 games for the Tigers last season and collected his second Gold Glove in three seasons.

But if you also go back to 2002, the last year he played a majority of games as a third baseman, he finished second in the majors with a .978 fielding percentage, committing just eight errors in 131 games.

"I think he's such a good ballplayer, and because he did so well at second base over the years, he's going to fit right in and be able to handle that position," Perlozzo said.

It should also be noted that Feliz's defensive play slipped some in 2009. He made just eight errors and had a .974 fielding percentage in 2008, then committed 15 errors and had a .966 fielding percentage last season.

Even if Polanco isn't quite as good as Feliz, the Phillies' defense still figures to be among the top 10 in the big leagues. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins has won three straight Gold Gloves at shortstop and Shane Victorino was the league's Gold Glove centerfielder last year.

First baseman Ryan Howard used to be the Phillies' weakest link on defense, but that changed drastically last season. Perlozzo believes Howard's defensive improvement will continue in 2010.

"We talked about it early in spring," Perlozzo said. "We went out and did some [fielding] sessions and we talked about taking his defense to yet another level. It's just a matter of consistency and updating a few of the things he started working on last year. He's very confident now and that's a big part of playing good defense."

Phillies present and past: How they rate defensively

It has been said that offense gets you the big contract, but defense wins championships. Staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick ranks the defense of the current Phillies, position by position, with their National League champion counterparts from 1950, 1980 and 1993.

First base

1. Eddie Waitkus. Like the name of the book and movie his strange story helped inspire, Waitkus was a natural on defense. Unusual for a first baseman, his glove trumped his bat. "That's why I'm driving a low-priced car instead of a big limousine," he said.

2. Pete Rose. Better known for offense at all his positions, Rose actually had the highest fielding percentage among NL first basemen in 1980. But sharing an infield with Manny Trillo, Larry Bowa and Mike Schmidt, he rarely got a bad throw.

3. John Kruk. Sure-handed on balls he could reach. But his range was smaller than Tommy Greene's vocabulary.

4. Ryan Howard. The big man has improved greatly in the last few seasons but still has miles to go before earning Gold Glove status.

Second base

1. Manny Trillo. A three-time Gold Glove winner with the Phils, his powerful arm almost single-handedly won a couple of important postseason games for the '80 champions.

2. Mickey Morandini/Mariano Duncan. The Morandini half of this platoon was an outstanding defender, with sure hands and excellent range. Duncan was there for his bat.

3. Chase Utley. He has made great strides at the position. His range is among the best in the league, and he has virtually eliminated those occasional boots of easy grounders.

4. Mike Goliat. The least-recalled of the Whiz Kids was really a strong-armed third baseman playing out of position.

Shortstop

1. Jimmy Rollins. He gets the edge because of his astounding consistency. Rollins makes all the easy plays and most of the tough ones as well as virtually any shortstop in history.

2. Larry Bowa. A very, very close second. Davey Johnson, who also played with Mark Belanger and Luis Aparacio, called him the best defensive shortstop he'd ever seen.

3. Kevin Stocker. He gave the '93 Phillies exactly what they needed: solid defensive play at a position that until his call-up had been a defensive liability.

4. Granny Hamner. A look at his numbers, even given that era's iffy field conditions and tiny gloves, is sobering. He made 48 errors in '50 after committing 32 in '49.

Third base

1. Mike Schmidt. The greatest Phillie won 10 straight Gold Gloves. He combined athleticism, sure-handedness, a strong arm, and baseball guile into an unbeatable package.

2. Willie Jones. Puddin' Head was another of the Whiz Kids' defensive stalwarts. Five times he had the NL's best fielding percentage, and a record-tying seven times the most putouts.

3. Dave Hollins. Defense wasn't his strong point. But he never was afraid to take balls off his chest.

4. Placido Polanco. He has been primarily at second base since the end of the 2002 season but was solid at third when he played there.

Left field

1. Raul Ibanez. He did a creditable, though hardly spectacular, job in his first season in Citizens Bank Park's tricky left field.

2. Milt Thompson/Pete Incaviglia. Thompson's defensive skills are virtually negated by Incaviglia's near total lack of them.

3. Dick Sisler. The hero of 1950s final game made 41 errors in his four Philadelphia seasons.

4. Greg Luzinski. Four words say it all: Where was Jerry Martin?

Center field

1. Richie Ashburn. Though he never got the ink of his contemporaries, his career fielding percentage is better than Willie Mays' and Mickey Mantle's. Ashburn led the NL in putouts nine straight seasons and in assists three times.

2. Garry Maddox. Another very close second. Maddox won eight Gold Gloves and covered more ground than any centerfielder in Phils history.

3. Shane Victorino. The strongest arm of the four, Victorino needs a few more seasons at the position and a few more Gold Gloves before he can be ranked with Ashburn and Maddox.

4. Lenny Dykstra. Plenty of range, plenty of guts and hustle, but an arm that was weak as the '93 club's manners.

Right field

1. Jayson Werth. He has shown the ability to run down balls and has a gun for an arm. He needs another season or two under his belt before he enters the Gold Glove discussion.

2. Bake McBride. A better-than-average rightfielder whose reputation may have suffered in comparison to the man playing alongside him, Maddox.

3. Jim Eisenreich/Wes Chamberlain. As is the case with Thompson, any assessment of Eisenreich's considerable abilities is diminished by those of his less-than-stellar platoon-mate.

4. Del Ennis. A better-than-average rightfielder, the Philadelphia native played more often in left and was better known for his big bat.

Catcher

1. Bob Boone. He was a seven-time Gold Glove winner and a superb handler of pitchers (with the notable exception of Steve Carlton). Boone allowed only three passed balls in 1977.

2. Carlos Ruiz. A solid, steady major-leaguer with a better-than-average arm and an ability to connect mentally with his pitchers.

3. Darren Daulton. A very good catcher whose real strengths were leadership and, later in his career, offense.

4. Andy Seminick. The spunkiest Whiz Kid was tough and fiery but always a below-average receiver.

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577